- Bonnie D. Ford, Enterprise and Olympic Sports
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BAGNERES-DE-BIGORRE, France -- Tour de France results, like laboratory results, are often subject to interpretation. With a week elapsed in the race, those watching have a choice. They can be turned off by a positive doping test or impressed by the sensational showing made by one of the teams dedicated to changing the paradigm. Or both.
Team Columbia could go home happy right now with two stage wins by 23-year-old British sprinter Mark Cavendish and four days in iconic yellow for its leader and stealth overall contender Kim Kirchen of Luxembourg.
"There are 21 stages and 20 teams," team director Rolf Aldag noted Saturday night in the happy lobby of the team hotel. "Not everyone can win one, and we have two. But we've -- I wouldn't say wasted energy, but invested a lot of energy early on."
Of course, the U.S.-owned team plans to finish out the remaining 1,300-plus miles of the Tour route, although its riders expended a lot of ammunition to defend Kirchen's place and slingshot the nervy Cavendish into position. With the race entering the Pyrenees, and the knowledge that the high mountains are not Kirchen's cup of tea, Columbia is scaling back its expectations and settling in for a siege.
"We knew we'd have to pick our battles and stages," team owner Bob Stapleton said. "We loaded our resources toward the first week, and we were maybe a little bit stronger than we expected. Our goal is top-five for Kim, and we're going to stick to that. Now we have to play off the circumstances in the race."
Team Columbia's success is a tribute to setting realistic goals and expectations, which in turn is the first principle of combating the doping culture. The opposite pole was represented by the news that veteran Spanish domestique Manuel Beltran had turned up positive for the blood-booster EPO.
The line between dopers and non-dopers is not entirely generational. But without smearing specific teams, it's fair to say that Beltran, who rode for Spanish powerhouses Mapei and Banesto in the mid-to-late '90s before he became one of Lance Armstrong's faceless foot soldiers from 2003 to 2005, came of age at a time when support riders earned their slots by whatever means necessary. Domestiques are a dime a dozen in Europe, and we now know from anecdotal and hard evidence that many have crossed the line to keep their jobs.
Beltran, cutely nicknamed "Triki" for his resemblance to a Spanish cartoon character who gobbled cookies, was notorious in the peloton for his lousy bike handling and bad temper, but he could climb like a goat with wings. The Italian team Liquigas signed him for this season, a transitional one as the squad awaits the arrival of Ivan Basso in 2009 -- the same Ivan Basso who will be coming off a two-year suspension in October after he admitted dealings with a blood-doping ring in Spain.
The revelation of a tentative positive might have sent shock waves through the race if it had involved a young, charismatic rider or one outspoken about being clean, but Beltran is old (37) and apparently old school. His test result and subsequent detention by French police were also old news by the time 24 hours had passed. Under the terms of a contract signed by all Tour entrants, Liquigas is liable for a $150,000 fine and would be ejected from the Tour in the event of a second positive result.
Beltran's "A" sample result was leaked to the French sports daily L'Equipe (could someone at least make the token gesture of scolding the Chatenay-Malabry lab for its indiscretions?), but even that often imperious publication didn't make a big deal of it. Although a "B" sample is needed for confirmation, even critics of this particular lab have said its EPO testing -- developed by scientists there -- is credible.
The most startling thing about Beltran's apparent offense is its utter stupidity. "It's clearly addictive behavior," Stapleton opined, and that rings true. Doping controls in cycling have become more businesslike and thus more apt to nab cheaters.
Beltran was one of several riders (no official numbers have been released) whose blood values, while not technically illegal, looked funky in prerace testing. French anti-doping authorities didn't waste any time -- Beltran was tested again on the first day of the race, along with the top three finishers in the stage and an interesting collection of selected riders that included Lampre leader and overall contender Damiano Cunego of Italy and Garmin-Chipotle's reformed crusader David Millar. (Garmin team director Jonathan Vaughters told reporters none of his riders had irregular blood values reported in prerace testing.)
It's been fascinating to track the riders called for testing every day. The old dartboard system, in which random numbers were pulled along with stage winners and overall leaders, has been scrapped in favor of a more targeted approach. The authorities round up what you might call usual suspects in addition to the day's top riders and perhaps a true random or two.
After Stage 6, for example, the lucky numbers included Kirchen and the top-four stage finishers -- title contenders Alejandro Valverde and Cadel Evans among them -- and three other riders, including French veterans Jimmy Casper and Jerome Pineau. The top six in the stage and top two in the overall were tested after Stage 8. The Stage 4 time trial saw the winner and 12 other riders -- an almost unheard-of number after a stage -- climb the steps into the white van, where two separate testing rooms have been set up to speed things along.
Team Columbia's riders have practically taken up residence there, thanks to their results. Kirchen alone has undergone 12 anti-doping tests in the past two weeks, counting the Tour, his previous race (the Tour de Suisse) and the team's own independently monitored blood-profiling program, according to Stapleton.
It's not hard to do the math. More testing means there's a greater chance of positives, even in what is being assumed to be a cleaner Tour. The reaction to Beltran's alleged transgression wasn't exactly a shrug, but it was less emotional than it might have been during the maelstroms of 2006 and 2007.
"Professional sport, there's going to be doping," Millar said, munching a rice cake outside the Garmin-Chipotle team bus Saturday morning. "As long as there's doping controls, there's going to be positives.
"Now what we have to do is handle it, and carry on and do the right thing," Millar said, his accent thickening as it does when he gets intense. "What we're doing with our team I think is the future of the sport, and so is CSC and so is Columbia. I think there's many other teams going the right direction. I think what the sport is doing as a whole now is great. There's always going to be guys who are doing it the wrong way, but it's up to us to do it the right way. And eventually we will be, I think we already are, the majority."
And ideally, in front, as Columbia was Sunday.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at email@example.com.
Followers of cycling can take the latest positive doping result a number of ways, but there should be no doubt that the attitude toward it among riders and teams has definitely changed.